the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Beck comes back to his roots after 36 years teaching

Ervin Beck’s arc through the literary world as an English professor at Goshen College has taken a young Mennonite boy around the world and back home again since he began teaching in 1967 to today as he retires.

Beck grew up in the rural Mennonite community of Pettisville, Ohio. After graduating from GC in 1959 and going on to earn a master’s degree in 1967 from Indiana University, he returned to the Goshen campus as a young professor prepared to teach mainstream – specifically early British – literature courses. Though such classes have remained in his teaching load over the years, Beck’s areas of expertise have expanded – notably alongside his international experience.

“Teaching at Goshen College certainly broadened my interests, my research and my teaching, which pleases me very much,” Beck said.

Beck was asked to teach the course International Literature in 1973, after completing a doctorate in English at Indiana University, when the topic was first offered as a supplement to the international education program. According to Beck, he was not prepared at all, but the request led him into a new, emerging focus in literary studies: post-colonial literature. “Teaching international literature gave me a new body of literature from a different cultural context,” Beck said.

With his wife Phyllis Lauver (’59), Beck led three SST groups to Belize in 1975-76 where he became intrigued with the country’s folktales and songs. “This is one effect that the international education program has had on me,” Beck said. In his office, he has kept notebooks containing 150 stories and 200 songs transcribed from his time in Belize.

When he traveled to England during sabbatical opportunities in 1981-82 and 1990, Beck pursued English folklore. His interest in folklore continued – but took a more familiar turn – when he returned and studied Mennonite-Amish storytelling and folk arts, which brought him to his current interests and expertise in Mennonite literature. “In a sense, [my study of] folklore brought me back to my own culture,” Beck said. He led coordination of the “Mennonite/s Writing” conferences in 1997 and 2002, which Goshen College hosted. He has served as assistant editor for the Mennonite Quarterly Review since 1968 and chaired the Mennonite Museum Committee at Goshen College since 1984.

In his 36 years at GC and in the English department, Beck has observed many changes. The biggest changes have come since 1973 as the literary world shifted from its historical approach to traditional, Western literature and began emphasizing cultural studies. “It was a leveling out of high, low and mid-brow culture that looks at literature from the point of view of power structures and emphasizes diversity,” Beck said. He attributes English majors scoring in the top 1 percent on the Education Testing Exam to the English department retention of historical surveys for majors, alongside courses emphasizing cultural studies approaches to literature.

Though Beck yearns for more focus on European cultural literacy, because of the way it expanded his own perspective and enriched his life, he also recognizes how the shifts in teaching have greatly impacted his own pursuits. “What the loss in European cultural literacy and the gain in diversity has made possible for me is my interest in post-colonial literature, folk culture and Mennonite literature – none of which would be possible under the old model of canonical mainstream literary studies,” Beck said.

Another significant change in the English department during Beck’s years is an increased emphasis on creative writing and the publishing of student writing in Broadsides and Pinchpenny Press volumes. His own publishing has included the books “Migrant Muses: Mennonite’s Writing in the U.S.” with John D. Roth, professor of history, and “Folk Stories from Belize: ‘We Jus Catch Um’” with Shirley Warde; book reviews in World Literature Today, Festival Quarterly, Lore and Language, Mennonite Quarterly Review; and the articles “Telling the Tale in Belize” in Journal of American Folklore, “Postcolonial Complexity in the Writings of Rudy Wiebe” in Modern Fiction Studies and “Reggie Jackson among the Mennonites” in Mennonite Quarterly Review.

As Beck packs up his office and remembers his days as a student under S.A. Yoder, John Fisher and Mary Oyer – who inspired his love for words, stories and the fine arts – he hopes his love for good stories has been passed to his own students. “I hope they remember some of the stories they read. Stories are archetypal; a good story resonates with one’s experience,” he said. “And I hope they can keep coming back to them, finding explanations, solace and comfort for what is going on in their own lives.”

Included in Beck’s favorite literary works are “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene, “Candide” by Voltaire, “The Poems of John Donne” and “The Blue Mountains of China” by Rudy Wiebe – a good mix of literature representative of his own literary journey.
Top of page